The title poem I Will Not Bear You Sons in Usha Akella’s new book of poetry powerfully lays bare how cultural preferences for male heirs has led to rocketing rates of female foeticide in India, and how women are forced to co-opt into a system that devalues them.
The award-winning US-based author’s collection of poems, published by the feminist publishing house Spinifex Press, is an indictment of cultural traditions rooted in patriarchy while also evocatively expressing the power of the feminine.
“My book is trying to convey the message that women are united in their struggles irrespective of caste, community, class, race and nation. In drawing out issues from various cultures, I’ve tried to highlight the universality of patriarchy. The issue is the same – the devaluing of the female sex, status and dignity,” says Usha, who is the founder of Matwaala, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She has authored six books of poetry, and scripted and produced two musical dramas. She also hosts POV, an interview and conversations website.
Her new poems aim to strike at the root of ancient patriarchal systems that see the girl child as a burden on families. The title poem, which runs into many pages (excerpted above), describes a typical family scene in India where the daughter-in-law is constantly under pressure to bear sons, until her rage erupts. The sex ratio in India fell from 940 females for 1000 males in 2011 to 900 females to 1000 males in 2015, mostly due to illegal sex-selective abortions.
“Female foeticide is undoubtedly, a terrible evil born from a mix of different factors dehumanising the female sex and wrongly assuming that the female sex is non-contributive. Women among the less economic advantaged classes are many times the primary earners. So, the mindset is social,” says Usha, who earned her MSt in creative writing from the University of Cambridge, UK. She is currently based in Austin, Texas, and is the mother of a 19-year-old daughter.
Reading Keats in grade four first sparked off Usha’s love for poetry. “It was that defining moment when I heard language as – magic! I went back home and tried my hand at my first poem. Many years of bad poems followed till I had my first formal guidance with Kendra Kopelke at the University of Baltimore in 1994,” she says of the beginnings of her journey as a poet.
The draw towards feminist issues was a kind of inner calling for Usha. She explains: “I realised that poetry was a powerful tool to use to express issues that bothered me deeply – feminist and other social issues. I believe a poet cannot lie to the blank page, she has to write about what she knows, what resonates and what is heartfelt. Women’s issues move me deeply and I understood early I had to tell my story and others’ stories to begin a process of empowerment and healing. Articulation is imperative as a step for freeing oneself.”
Usha’s last poetry book, The Waiting, published by Sahitya Akademi in 2019, was translated in Spanish translated by Elsa Cross. She was twice selected as a Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin and her work has been included in the India Anthology of English Poets by HarperCollins.
She is also the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin, which takes poetry readings to the disadvantaged in women’s shelters, senior homes and hospitals. The City of Austin has notified January 7 as Poetry Caravan Day.
Usha believes feminist poetry is a much-needed category. “It articulates many issues that need to be heard, which in turn influence poetics like establishing the validity of feminist themes as subject matter for poetry. Women’s themes are not less important than war and politics – a commonly held perception,” she states.
She refers to a poem in the new book, titled Harmony, in which a wife goes to great extremes to create meals for her husband who assumes her servility is his right. “The poem emphasises the domestic space as the political space – there really is no division,” she says.
It opens with these lines:
In fact, the relationship described as the poem progresses appears more akin to slavery than marriage. But Usha clarifies, “No work is slavery when it is a choice including homemaking. The point is choice. A woman has every right to choose to be a homemaker alone if that is her calling and fulfills her identity.”
She further gives a context: “Living in the US forces us to do a large amount of housework unlike in India where domestic help is affordable. So having lived here, I don’t find housework dehumanising. Tiring and tedious, perhaps, but not dehumanising. It becomes so if it wielded as a tool to subjugate and demoralise. In the poem, we see an example of role-playing internalised, played out and perpetrated.”
An admirer of feminist poets Kamala Das, Meena Kandasamy, Pramila Venkateswaran, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, Usha has been published in numerous literary journals and has been invited to prestigious international poetry festivals around the world.
She finds the paradox of gender inequality in India “bewildering”. While we have a plethora of goddesses, women are treated terribly in real life, subject to blatant misogyny, gender violence, religious extremism and rapes.
“I think the solution is very complex as the issue is complex and has to be addressed by the media, cinema, advertising, in the classroom and family – in society, overall,” she says, adding, “Men and boys need educating; too often the already converted are the recipients of social-change directives. How can we reach those who need converting? How do women undo brainwashing?”
There is also the question of religion-sanctioned sexism and misogyny. “Many feminist scholars such as Eleanor Gadon and Neela Saxena have worked intensively on the relationship of underlying religious structures to their social manifestations and expression. The absence of a she-God in the Abrahamic religions has resulted in certain distortions of the feminine. Likewise, we have deep-rooted myths and ideologies driving Hindu ideals of womanhood,” says Usha, who read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in June 2016.
Her initiative Matwaala, co-directed with Pramila Venkateswaran, was born in 2015 from the perceived need to increase the visibility of South Asian diaspora poets in the mainstream.
“This year and next,” she says, “our festival is a series of readings with poets of colour: African American, Native American, South/Central, Mexican, Dalit and Asian American. We recognise the need to express solidarity with these groups of poets due to the commonality of issues faced, and we hope to influence the canon and try to have more South Asians recognised. At least, that is the direction of the work we do.”
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